On Salmon, Reluctantly

I’ve been mentoring a now-12 year old for a few years, and in that time, she’s become more my little sister than anything else.

We met through the adoption camps that I volunteer for, and her parents asked if I’d be willing to hang out with her and be a role model for her. (It’s interesting how sometimes the very notion that you are a role model for a child propels you forward, especially when you feel incredibly small.) So we began our journey to pseudo-sisterhood one winter day in 2015.

Flash forward to multiple family dinners. They are a very healthy family, and to me it seemed that every time I would go over, they’d be making salmon. Grilled salmon, baked salmon, salmon a million ways. My 12 year old would always balk at the salmon, and so, in the spirit of role modeling, I would choke down salmon the way she liked it: cracker, slathered in cream cheese, salmon. Actually, that’s a decent way to baby step into salmon consumption. Cream cheese is a beautiful thing.

Okay, I’d think to myself, you can do this. Salmon is healthy; it’s full of Omega-3s and whatever else you need. Eat it. Demonstrate curiosity and willingness to try new things.

So I kept eating salmon.

At a recent family dinner, I remarked that they’re always making salmon, and they told me that they thought salmon was my favorite. Achievement clearly unlocked, as I have been faking a love of salmon so well and for so long that they believed it. That’s why they made salmon every time.

We laughed, as I explained that I was trying to demonstrate good eating habits, and since then, our menu has differed significantly. The other night, we ate manicotti, as my 12 year old scraped off all of the sauce, leaving just cheese and noodles. (How one can appreciate anything without sauce, I cannot fathom; I clearly still have work to do here.)

And, proudly, a few weeks ago, I bought fresh salmon at Costco, slathered it in pesto, topped it with breadcrumbs and shredded cheese, baked it for 17 min and then broiled it carefully for 3 min to crisp up the crumbs, and, to my great surprise, I enjoyed the hell out of some salmon for the first time in my adventures in cooked fish.

I’ll have to send them the recipe. Or perhaps, I’ll just have to make it for them the next time we have family dinner.

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On the Cat, Tearily

Ignore the whole “is your pet your child?” debate…because we are moving forward with this post under the assumption that yes, your pet is absolutely your child. Of course, he’s never going to graduate from high school, or get a wife and family, or pay for my eventual nursing home, but for all intents and purposes, Carlos is my child, albeit my feline child.

For almost six years, he’s been a constant in my life. Perhaps the only constant, other than my car (whose parentage we won’t argue about today…for obvious, pet-as-kid-negating reasons). Carlos has been with me since I was twenty-one, which isn’t something I can say about very much else in my life, not merely as a possession, but as a constant companion.

I knew when I adopted him that eventually, he would get sick and die. I guess that’s how it works with most things. Today, my therapist asked what his prognosis was, and I answered succinctly, “Death.” And then I paused for a moment and reconsidered. “Every living thing’s prognosis is death.” Which is true, but one a more realistic note, his prognosis is now good. Hopefully. With the aid of fancy prescription wet and dry food and a stash of medicine I’m amazed at, of course…

Carlos has been with me since we lived in that third floor apartment on Newgard in Chicago; lived with me at my City Park apartment, and now lives with me in my first home. He’s been with me through countless relationships, three jobs, two continents, and the loss of the dog (one of us was pleased to see the dog go…I’ll let you guess which one). He’s survived cancer and hernia surgeries, and come out pretty healthy, considering he’s a Chicago street cat with FIV.

A couple weeks ago, when he started crying and urinating blood, I was distraught. He’s not a complainer. After emergency calls to find that my usual vet was booked for days and the other vets whose names I’d been given my friends were also not available, I took him to the nearest vet. He was given a dose of antibiotics and some ridiculously expensive bloodwork. (If only Obamacare covered pets…thanks Obama.)

24 hours later, we were back in the same place. My cat isn’t a cryer, and so hearing him cry out in pain is a uniquely disturbing sensation. I wanted to fix it, of course, and so we went back to that vet, they had our most recent test results, after all…an emergency overnight stay, a credit card handed over blindly, and we were on our way with little knowledge other than that he had been given fluids and should be healing.

Flash forward to last night, when it began all over again. I didn’t sleep. I called another vet this morning (never going back to other vet — I felt as though I was merely a sale waiting to be made, with little regard for my son’s wellbeing), and they got me in immediately. We went. He was examined, evaluated, and sent home with more information, new meds, and a hopeful follow-up.

I’m grateful to my parents for giving us pets as children, allowing us the unconditional love that comes with owning a pet, caring for them, and the eventual pain of losing them. Even though I have had to say goodbye to numerous animals in my lifetime, including the dog – who isn’t dead, but in California – I know that losing Carlos will be the hardest loss of my young life. I brought myself to tears last night thinking about that, then looked him in his yellow eyes and told him that after all the money I’d spent the past few weeks, he wasn’t allowed to go yet, because I wasn’t ready.

I tried to make myself feel better by blaming it on the evisceration of my savings, but the honest truth of it is that I’m not ready. I know I won’t ever be, but right now I’m not even a little bit ready. He’s not done yet. He hasn’t moused enough, or spent enough hours in the grass baking in the sun, or napped in my arms while I do computer things.

I have loved every moment of cat motherhood. I had never considered myself a cat person, or had a cat, or even wanted one, and then I met Carlos. I know that’s what they all say. But to love something so deeply is a strange and beautiful feeling. This morning, he was crouched in his carrier at the vet, terrified and hiding in a very uncharacteristic way, and I stuck my hand in, to try to comfort him. He nuzzled up against it, rubbing it against the sides of his face, and settled in against my palm. My heart wrenched. I have never felt so responsible for a life in my life, and it is in that that I realize how deeply love can cut us.

Love is the most precious gift we are given. For him, as a cat, motivated by food and sleep and shelter, he seeks me as his guardian. He comes to me at night to hold his little body while we sleep, and I in turn look to him for comfort. After my ex and I broke up, and I gave myself a day to cry, I laid in bed, miserable. The cat came to me and laid on my chest, nuzzling me and staring at me with his bright eyes, and I knew in that moment that he understood. I realize that we can’t communicate with words, but words don’t matter. I am his and he is mine. We are.

Regardless of when he goes (may it be ten years in the future, please), I will take great comfort in knowing that we were able to give each other comfort in the moments when we needed it most and that we were able to share so much together. At night, I turn to find him, or he’ll come to me – claws out in order to drive home his intentions – for snuggling. We have slept next to each other for so many nights, claws/paws and hands entangled, in that beautiful dance of solidarity.

He has brought so much joy into my life, and I don’t think I stop to be grateful for his presence enough. Of course, he’s a financial burden, even more so now with his fancy foods and supplements, but I knew that going in. I committed. And I am so blessed that we found each other. I’m very selfishly so happy that I got to be his mom, because I don’t think anyone else on this earth could have loved him as much as I love him. I also don’t think I could ever love another cat the way I love him. He’s got such a beautiful personality, something I never expected.

I love his missing fang, his snaggletooth, his cropped ear, his broken tail, the way his stomach dangles where he had the hernia surgery. I love his face. It’s so expressive. I love the way he yawns, the way he stretches, the way he curls up and somehow manages to take up half the bed. I love his aloofness, his curiosity, his endless desire to roll in dirt or lay in his dirt hole. I love how much he demands snuggling. I love the way he sits in my clothes pile when I’m taking a bath, waiting for me. I love how he can’t purr and the sound he makes when he jumps.

I don’t really know what I’m trying to say, but I guess it’s that I’m so happy that he’s okay. I’m so happy that I get to have more nights with him. I’m so happy that I brought him home that first night, and I’ve been so blessed to have shared this love and life with him. (Even though his love for me may be based on the amounts of wet food he’s received…some part of me thinks it’s deeper than that…and I’m sticking to it.)

On Parenting and Educating, Symbiotically

I’m not a parent; I know that I have absolutely no ground to disparage parenting in any way. That being said, I’ve been a babysitter since I was twelve, and I’ve been around a number of very different parenting styles. While I understand the motivations behind each and every parenting choice that the parents I’ve worked for make, I really do question quite a few of them.

This article showcases an emerging trend in parenting psychology. It’s worth the read.

I babysit for one kid who struggles with social interaction and behavioral issues (I’ve babysat for many just like her), and I know that her mom struggles with “the problem” on a daily basis. Over the course of our time together, I’ve instituted a “no-nonsense” policy: if the kid is not going to do her homework, I calmly tell her that until we do the homework, we’re not going to do anything else. Then I sit down at the table and pull out the homework. I start doing it, slowly. (I realize this in itself is a problem.) I tell her that until she helps me with her homework, we’re not going to play, and I withhold the promise of dessert or playtime until she’s put in demonstrable effort. Lo and behold, it works. She ends up completing the homework, at which point, I give her double high-fives and tell her how proud of her I am.

If she’s going to say mean things to me, I’ll take a page from my mom’s book and tell that I find her speech to be inappropriate and hurtful and tell her that I’m not going to listen to her until she can speak to me in a more calm, polite manner. A few minutes of ignoring does a world of good – the kids want the attention, even negative attention, and so reminding them that they need to be respectful about it changes their approach immediately. Being ignored is the absolute worst, and when we continue to give the kids the negative reinforcement, we’re teaching them that attention can only be achieved through negative actions. Of course, this is a call to parents and caregivers to make sure that they are giving plenty of positive attention to children as well, so they don’t feel compelled to act out in order to get the attention that they crave.

On multiple occasions, I’ve pulled a kid aside, taken both of their hands into mine and looked into their eyes. I tell them that I know how hard it is to do things that we don’t want to do and how proud of them I am. I tell them that I appreciate their cooperation and compliment something in the homework that I think they’ve done fabulously, like counting or coloring or whatever. I want to reinforce the positives and applaud their choice to do the homework, not because I feel that they’ve done anything spectacular, but because I know that they’re not getting that reinforcement elsewhere and I want to at least entertain the idea that good work gets good results.

Sometimes, a child I’m babysitting for will get frustrated. Instead of trying to figure out a solution, they’ll dissolve into child-hysterics (duh, they’re children), crying and wailing without any real reason. I’ll calmly remind them that there’s another solution to their problem and I’ll ask them what they think will help solve it. We talk it out; we find a solution. If the jar won’t open or the toy won’t work, we look to see what might be done about it. (Personal note: only after exhausting most options are tears acceptable and sometimes encouraged. I get that. I’m all about a good cry-it-out session. Those sometimes are the best solutions.)

The same goes for diner. I have parents who cater to their children’s every demand when it comes to food, or alternately, completely ignore basic food groups and then wonder why their child is struggling with issues such as attention, energy, and general behavior. I have found that by limiting the choices but offering something that the kid will enjoy and eat (that’s simultaneously healthy or at the very least semi-nutritious) will go a long way towards obtaining the desired results.

I love children. I understand that each and every child has issues that need to be addressed individually.

At one of the adoption camps this summer, there was a little guy who was struggling on the second morning. He didn’t want to leave his dad, and it took me immense amounts of coaxing to get him to come with me. I promised him that I was not going to leave him until lunch (letting him know that he had someone that was going to be with him was important), and that if he didn’t want to, he didn’t have to have ANY fun. I ended up getting him away from his dad (“dad’s got to go to boring parent stuff; he’s not going to have any fun either.”) and getting him to hold my hand and come with me. He was apprehensive about joining the group, so he and I took a walk around the building and I tried to find some common ground. I asked him if he had any siblings. He told me he had a dog sister. I asked about the dog’s name and what she liked to do, and then I told him that I used to have a dog named Acorn. The little guy looked up at me quizzically, and then giggled when I told him that we used to call him “Corn dog.”

By the next session, I had worked him into the group and helped him make a car out of recycled materials. After that, he did some art therapy. By lunch, I brought him back to his dad and asked him if he’d had any fun at all that morning. He broke into a huge grin and said, “No.” I was so pleased. That’s the feedback I need, the feedback that makes all of that time worthwhile.

At the end of the day, the dad came up to me and thanked me for helping his son feel more comfortable. I answered honestly that I wouldn’t have had it any other way. One of the parents who was standing next to us turned to the dad and said, “That’s why we call her the ‘child whisperer.'” I blushed, filled with pride and happiness. I absolutely adore little kids and I do feel as though I am able to connect with them, simply because I understand what they need. They’re full of all the fear and apprehension that I felt as a kid, and so I think that’s what allows me to be able to respond to their individual needs.

That being said, I think we’re in a time where we overindulge our children. My mom worked really hard to create resilient children, and she did so through consistency, unconditional love, and determination/patience. Recently, one of my friends who has a terrible mother was going through a rough time and I insisted that we call my mom. My friend was crying and was terrified that she was going to “screw it up.” I told her that that’s the thing about moms, you can’t “screw it up.” You can call them crying (oh god, a million times have I called my mom in tears only to have her tell me that she can’t understand me and I’m going to have to use my words…) and they’re still going to love you.

By creating a space where we allow children the freedom to evaluate their own emotions and create genuinely productive responses to them, we create not only stable children but functional adults. By establishing systems and routines for assessing emotions, we allow children to plumb the often-neglected depth of their own feelings and provide the opportunity for them to help create a response that’s going to be fruitful not just now but in the future.

One of my mom’s favorite stories is from when I was very young. We were part of a camp or after-school program or something and we were at the local YMCA doing swimming. I remember being absolutely terrified (my general state of being as a small child), and she recounts that she came to pick me up and I looked at her and asked, “Why do I cry?” She knew immediately that we needed a new plan for swimming lessons, as the group setting wasn’t going to do it for me. By tailoring her response to my emotional assessment (such that it was), she was able to set me up for swimming success by giving me a different learning setting and a more tailored lesson plan.

That’s good parenting. It wasn’t indulging in tantrums or ridiculous behavior; it was catering to a specifically outlined need as a result of my own communication of my feelings. It allowed both of us to feel comfortable, although one of us ended up lighter in the pocketbook for it. But to this day, when I swim, I think of my swim teacher and I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity to learn and grow at my own pace, rather than in a group setting that somehow made my child-self profoundly uncomfortable.

Schools and school staff are becoming increasingly more responsible for parenting. The integration of positive efforts to affect (and create the desire to effect, too) behavior and help regulate children’s emotions and reactions are more necessary than ever. I understand the frustration that a teacher might feel when they’re constantly obligated to single out a child for poor behavior in the classroom due to any number of factors, including learning disabilities, disorders, and home life, but I do believe that consistent application of tools – particularly emotion-based ones – can not only affect classroom stability, but the overall wellbeing of the child.

If we’re able to provide the resources, then why are we not implementing these programs as part of a well-rounded approach to learning? (We do waste enough money on ineffective programs, and I understand that there are budgetary constraints, but in order to create and maintain the results we desire, it’s imperative that we be proactive rather than reactive about our approach to educating the whole child….rather than teaching to test scores or attaining specific metrics. I firmly believe that we can attain the results we desire if we’re able to establish consistency, so let’s figure out how to allocate the funds for these programs….ugh, which is another issue, of course.)

Each child will face innumerable struggles between socialization, education, and personal growth, and it’s up to the parents as well as the school system to foster the links between all three. By endeavoring to create more awareness in our children, we’re allowing them to help be a part of the educational system and their own maturation, which is not only necessary, but entirely empowering.

On the Right Dog, Appreciatively

The Wrong Dog – New York Times 

We got Acorn when he was 4.5 months old. He was already broken – scared, shy, hesitant. Whatever had happened to him before we got him was enough damage to last a lifetime. Even now, a year and some days after we brought him home from Mississippi, he cowers every time he goes in or out of the back door; he remains terrified of wood/linoleum/tile floors; he begs for attention constantly. He’s the same nervous baby nugget we brought home with us, cowering, terrified, alone. He’s a beta, through and through. (Nothing wrong with that, of course.)1

I’m so very happy that our rescue situation worked out for us – he definitely needed a lot of love and discipline, but at his core, he’s the sweetest dog you’ll ever meet. Trouble, definitely, but the best kind. I’m so grateful that he found us and that he’s melded so well into our lives. I feel for people who’ve loved and had to let go of dogs who just aren’t a good fit. I know it’s hard and horrible, and I respect the choice to let them go. I hate it (for both human and dog) but I know that sometimes, it’s the only option. (It also helps that Acorn had probably never seen a cat – or been inclined to attack anything – our cat Carlos hates him, but they’ve come to tolerate each other – when Acorn isn’t trying to eat the cat’s wet food.)

Our dog needed so much love to bring him into the confident dog he is today. He’s bad, but only when he hasn’t been walked enough. Case in point: the last three days. No walks = chewed up papers all over the house, chewed up trash in the backyard, catching him in the alley in the morning after I’ve let him out.

He doesn’t run though. Our yard is open, and we live on a busy street. He hangs out in the backyard, and every now and then we’ll find him in the front yard, lounging, or the alley, where, when called, he’ll guiltily sneak back through the gate like he hasn’t been gone. He doesn’t even approach the post man. He knows we’re his family. He begs for our attention, which I hate, but tolerate since I understand how much of it we had to give him in the beginning to earn his trust.

We couldn’t have been luckier. That post in the New York Times reminds me how lucky we are to have such a funny, expressive, adorable fur-child in our lives.